Where sports and politics collide.
Workers assemble the finish line for the New York City Marathon in New York's Central Park, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. The New York City Marathon is on Sunday, with many logistical questions to be answered. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Being born and raised in New York City, I deeply understand the local importance of the NY Marathon. Growing up, we used to watch the “biggest race on earth” from the street, handing out drinks to the brave souls on the twenty-six-mile trek. The night before, my mother’s friends would have parties where shaggy-haired joggers would drink gallons of water and eat plates of plain pasta in preparation. In hushed tones, these glowing adults would tell us kids about Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers and Grete Waitz, and their near-mythic ability to master the marathon. It’s an event dear to the hearts of New Yorkers, a tender tradition in a city defined by constant change. It also, without question or delay, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, should be postponed.
Most of my family and friends in this world still live within the city borders. All are safe and unharmed, but that doesn’t mean Sandy left them undamaged. My mom is sofa-surfing because her building is without power. My buddy Alex may have lost his job because it’s taking four hours to get through the Lincoln Tunnel. My friends from Staten Island feel like they “want to die” after hearing about the two toddlers pulled from their mother and into the flood. This is no time for a race.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg justifed a “business as usual” approach to the marathon by saying simply, “The city is a city where we have to go on.” But this isn’t a psychological issue of people needing to “move on” from the week’s tragedy. Hundreds of thousands, like my mother, have no power. Public transportation is a nightmare and the death toll is still climbing. My friend Anthony from Brooklyn called me up this morning just to vent, saying, “They are still pulling bodies out of people’s homes. How can you divert even one emergency personnel worker for the sake of the marathon? It’s beyond wrong.”
George Hirsch, the chairman of the board of the New York Road Runners, which puts on the NY Marathon, said, “I understand the controversy completely and respect all the views on this, but any decision that was made by the mayor would have been controversial and to call off the race would have been equally as controversial. By Sunday afternoon, there won’t be any controversy. People will view it as an early step in the city’s recovery.”
It’s difficult to imagine how this can be “a step in the city’s recovery” if the act of putting on the race drains any resources from efforts to make sure residents are safe. Simon Ressner is a lieutenant at the New York Fire Department and a marathon runner. I’ll give his perspective a lot more weight than that of Mike Bloomberg and George Hirsch. Ressner told The New York Times, that emergency personnel are deeply stressed, covering everything from their typical duties to making sure stray fires aren’t sparked as hundreds line up at gas stations to fill cans and containers. “I’ve written two e-mails to the Road Runners saying, ‘Just postpone it’”, he said. “That way, you’ll still get the money, you’ll still have a high-profile event, but it would show that you’re being sensitive. But now, we’re not going to show the world we’re resilient, we’re going to show them we’re selfish.”
The marathon, per tradition, launches from Staten Island, where devastation may be the most acute. Thousands have lost power, entire streets are closed off, and nineteen deaths have already been reported. This is made worse by the sense among residents that they are the “forgotten borough,” left to die while Manhattan’s Uptown was left with barely a scratch. Resident Nicole Malliotakis said to CBS news, “We are far from fine and the fact that the mayor wants to have a marathon this weekend when we have people who lost either their lives or lost their entire house. I mean, it’s unbelievable to me.”
It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that the NY Marathon, instead of unifying the city, is now just another example of how savage New York’s inequalities have become. Public housing projects are at constant risk of flooding. The risk of disease being spread through open sewage lines is rampant. But emergency officials, in short supply, will be pulled away to make sure that runners who cramp up around Pulaski Bridge have sufficient fluids. I still remember fondly the shaggy hippies getting ready to run the Marathon back in the early 1980s. I remember them fondly not because they could run twenty-six miles but the values of community and fair play they believed that the marathon exemplified. There is no question in my mind that they would stand with a basic notion of humanity before they would stand with this race. It’s a humanity that Michael Bloomberg seems to sorely lack.
There is an online petition to postpone the marathon. Sign it here.
In a trade that shocked the most snark-encrusted NBA observers, the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped its hellaciously talented, hirsute guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assemblage of spare parts. Harden, the reigning sixth-man of the year, made up along with teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the core of the defending Western conference champions. The Oklahoma City Thunder was the only legitimate team standing between the restocked Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Perhaps age and chemistry will knock the Lakers aside, but absent that, their greatest threat just waved the white flag before opening day. This electric young team with title hopes just unilaterally disarmed because it claimed to be a poor small-market club unable to meet the contract demands of the 23-year-old star.
Immediately the cry went out across all media, old and new: small-market teams like Oklahoma City just can’t compete. As USA Today wrote, “The deal cuts to the heart of the plight of small- and mid-market teams such as the Thunder. Can they return all of their top players? Are they willing to have a payroll that surpasses the luxury tax and are they willing to pay the tax when they go over?”
Thunder management played the part of damaged small market suitor, with General Manager Sam Presti saying, “We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.” He also spoke mournfully of their need to have a “sustainable” model for developing the team. As Howard Beck wrote in the New York Times, “A system that forces a small-market wonder to give up a star player—to a team in a much larger market, no less—seems cruel and counterproductive.”
This is all nonsense. If we want to understand why the hideous Harden trade took place, we need to understand the politics and priorities of today’s NBA. We need to understand that the Thunder are small-market by choice because small-markets can mean big profits. It’s a business model, not a tragic geographical handicap.
First, we need to remember how the Thunder came into existence in 2008 because in this case, past has certainly proven to be prologue. In full collusion with David Stern, Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and moved them to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Stern recruited Bennett, a former member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, to make this move. Why would David Stern, the man they call “Money.” choose to move a team from the fourteenth-largest television market to the forty-fifth? Why would he move a team to a place with one-twelfth the per capita income? Simply, put, it’s because Oklahoma City offered hundreds of millions in corporate welfare and public revenue while Seattle did not. Using Seattle as an object lesson for any other fan base that would dare tell Stern not to feed at the public trough, was a bonus. As Bennett gushed to Stern in a private e-mail, “You are just one of my favorite people on earth.” It’s a love built on a passion for corporate welfare, a love so great that the NBA chose to think small.
The move to a “small market” has meant the best of both worlds for the swelling pockets of Clay Bennett. It has provided him with a publicly subsidized money-making machine—$35 million in profits last year according to ESPN—while also creating the illusion of scarcity. Pressure to spend can be deflected, as Presti did, onto the need for “sustainability” while prying eyes are dissuaded by anti-trust protections: protections that outrageously exist even with the infusion of public money. The blame then gets deflected onto Harden for not taking less money to stay in Oklahoma City. I have never understood how sportswriters can turn so much bile on players for trying to maximize their incredibly narrow earning windows while owners, who have inherited—or in Bennett’s case, married—generational wealth, are exempt from the same criticisms. Last year’s Stern engineered lockout, it should now be clear, wasn’t about small-market competitive balance but extracting wealth from the players and redistibuting it into the bank accounts of ownership.
While Harden is slammed and Presti cries the tears of the crocodile, Bennett gets to be the Bain Capital of owners: harvesting teams for profits and then throwing away their dried husks when profit margins are under any kind of threat. David Stern will retire in February 2014, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come, and it’s a legacy that has cultivated a coterie of owners that put fans and communities last. The Harden trade is just a symptom of the disease.
“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” —Ralph Ellison
In game one of the 2012 World Series, over 40,000 fans in San Francisco chanted the name “Barry” with punch-drunk abandon. It was unbridled joy cut with a catharsis operating on more levels than three-dimensional chess. There was of course the explicit cry of relief at finally being able to cheer for their pitcher, reincarnated ace Barry Zito. Zito had been a historic disappointment since 2006, when he signed the largest free-agent pitching contract in history. The former Cy Young winner had been so middling he was left off the post-season roster when the Giants made their improbable run to the World Series back in 2010. He was an untradable piece of expensive dead capital: the $1,200 Betamax sitting in your basement. Then in 2012, Zito, pitching almost ten miles per hour slower than in those distant glory days, accepted his physical limitations, and reinvented his game going 15-8. And there he was: over-the-hill-at-34 Barry Zito out-dueling Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Finally the fans could chant his name.
But chanting “Barry” in San Francisco is not an act independent of deeper meaning. To hear “Barry” ring across the Bay is also to recall another former Giant who was in attendance last night: Barry Bonds.
When the seven-time most valuable player finished out his contract with the team in 2007 after leading the league in on-base percentage and home runs per at-bat, he wasn’t re-signed by the Giants or any other major league club. Bonds was treated like he had plague by baseball management because of the swirling charges that he was a steroid user. In a league trying to move past an era where every locker room contained bouquets of syringes, the weight of the “steroid era” was put on Bonds’s shoulders. This resulted in the complete removal of any mention of Bonds in the Giants organization. All the plaques, posters and stadium landmarks bearing his name disappeared faster than you could say “whitewash.” There was more evidence of George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention than there is of Bonds at Giants headquarters.
But the fans in San Francisco never forgot. They stood with him during his last tortured years as a player, and they stand with him now. Last night, they did even more.
By chanting “Barry,” the fans actually forced the radio and television announcers to acknowledge “the last time a different Barry” heard his name echoed through the park. On the radio broadcast, they acknowledged that this “different Barry” once existed without saying his last name. There was an awkward silence after their observation as if they had spoken out of turn and were about to be chided by a spectral disciplinarian in their midst.
On television, they handled “Barry” a touch differently. Lead Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck commented that fans used to chant “Barry” “for someone else around here.” Tim McCarver responded, “When Barry Manilow was here at concerts.” People assumed afterward that McCarver had experienced a senior moment of some kind or was just a bit out to lunch.
I don’t buy it. I believe McCarver’s chuckle, which you can hear immediately after his Manilow line, tells a different story. He was actually making a poorly executed joke about the invisibility of Barry Bonds and at the expense of Barry Bonds. There is a delight that the baseball cognoscenti takes in making Barry Bonds their “invisible man.” It’s a way to marginalize him without confronting what he represents. He’s a home-run king in exile. He’s the end product of an era where owners made billions selling a steroid-enhanced product. He’s the person who can no longer tell the press to go to hell, because they won’t acknowledge his voice. The press corps once asked Bonds if he thought steroids was cheating. Bonds responded, “Is steroids cheating? You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” Now they don’t have to care what he thinks. Now they can humiliate him forever by denying his existence.
It’s so fitting that it was the fans of San Francisco who forced his name onto the airwaves. It’s the city where generations of people traveled to escape the sting of invisibility. It’s the city where shame is treated as the greatest sin of all. It’s the city where Barry Bonds can thumb his nose at the exile of Major League Baseball, and truly be home.
For more on shame in sports, watch Dave Zirin talk Lance Armstrong on Current TV.
Imagine if in 2004 during the darkest days of the Iraq war, George W. Bush had called a press conference and said, “Wow. I have really screwed the pooch on this one and sure as heck can’t fix it. Well, fool me once… won’t get fooled again. I have therefore decided to call upon my predecessor, Bill Clinton, to clean this up. Have a nice day.” This would have meant more than a loss of prestige. Even Bill Kristol would call such a move the beginning of the end of Bush’s time in the White House.
That’s what just occurred in the corridors of power of the National Football League. Commissioner Roger Goodell has “recused himself” from hearing the appeals of four suspended current and former members of the New Orleans Saints charged with leading a “pay to injure” bounty scheme. Instead he’s appointed former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to do it for him. The evidence behind the suspensions has been unraveling for some time and now the authority of the once almighty current commissioner is unraveling with it.
There is no sugarcoating the defeat this represents for Roger Goodell. Over seventeen years, Paul Tagliabue oversaw labor peace and a spirit of cooperation with the NFL Players Association. Of course, most owners therefore couldn’t stand him. Goodell was selected as an anti-Tagliabue, a person the owners wanted to centralize authority, streamline the player-discipline process and, above all else, reclaim revenue from the players’ pockets. This was all justified by selling the necessity of a stern father cracking down on “conduct unbecoming” the NFL. Unlike every other sports league, when Goodell issues a suspension, players cannot appeal to an independent arbitrator but only to the NFL commissioner himself. The prosecutor is also judge and jury. No checks. No balances. Roger Goodell is the law.
The New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” was supposed to be the crowning achievement in Goodell’s efforts to remake the league as a vertically organized, authoritarian enterprise. He was, with great media fanfare, to dispense harsh justice on players who aimed to intentionally injure opposing players. In one swoop, Goodell would show his unquestioned concern for the health and safety of players and emerge as the most powerful leader in the most influential popular sport in the land. There was just one problem: the entire premise of “Bountygate” was built on a foundation of hypocrisy and lies.
This week, the Bountygate case imploded. Goodell sent a memo to all thirty-two teams that his “anonymous whistleblower”, whose existence many doubted, was in fact former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Not so fast. Kennedy released a statement saying that Goodell was spreading “blatant lies about me, thereby adding me to the list of men whose reputations and character have been irreparably damaged by the shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation behind this sham proceeding.” Kennedy goes on to categorically deny any possibility that he was a “whistleblower” for a bounty program looking as fictitious as the reasons a certain president took us to war in Iraq.
But this wasn’t even Goodell’s most acute migraine of the past week. One of the accused players, Cleveland Browns linebacker and outspoken NFLPA leader Scott Fujita, excoriated Goodell for rank hypocrisy on the issue of player safety. In a much-publicized written statement, Fujita spit fire, saying,
The Commissioner says he is disappointed in me. The truth is, I’m disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions & post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players’ rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league’s own definition, ‘conduct detrimental’. My track record on the issue of player health & safety speaks for itself. And clearly, as I just listed, the Commissioner’s does too.
The sentiments of Kennedy and Fujita are widespread in locker rooms around the NFL. Goodell is simply not seen as an honest broker. In the movie Miller’s Crossing, the world-weary Tom Regan says to his boss, the crime lord Leo O’Bannon, “You only run this town because people think you run it. The minute they stop thinking it, you stop running it.” Clearly more than a few players have decided that Goodell may have the legal authority but lacks the moral authority to tell them anything. Goodell’s call to former Commissioner Tagliabue is recognition of this reality.
Goodell’s effort to be Rudyard Kipling spliced with Gordon Gekko looks like it’s on the road to failure. It’s a failure for the owners but a victory of Fujita and the other players railroaded by the NFL’s discipline process. It’s a victory for the NFLPA, which has long maintained opposition to this kind of absolute authority. The NFLPA still may contest Taglibue’s appointment. Tagliabue’s law firm is currently representing the NFL in US District Court on the bounties case, and this raises “legal and ethical” issues. If the NFLPA chooses to, it can raise another “legal and ethical” issue: If Goodell is too compromised to hear the appeal, why should he have the sole authority to appoint his replacement?
But most of all, Goodell’s recusal is a victory for the non-1 percenters who are glued to the sport. There is too much power centralized in too few hands already in this country. The failure of Goodell to exercise that power on the highest possible cultural stage is a victory for all of us.
Currently the sports world is suffering its fourth lockout in the past fourteen months. On four occasions since August 2011, pro sports owners have locked their publicly subsidized stadium doors, sent stadium workers home and stopped play as usual. This is not coincidence or happenstance. It’s a coordinated management offensive that has reverberations far beyond the playing field. Let’s look at the facts.
Last fall it was NFL and NBA players locked out of their jobs. This off-season, we first had the NFL referees, who make a pittance relative to the league’s revenue, watching scab refs stumble for three weeks. Now we have the ongoing lockout of National Hockey League players. NHL owners are coming off a year in which they made a record $3.3 billion in revenue. League owners have responded to this success by locking out the players, demanding massive concessions, canceling eighty-two games and squandering reservoirs of good will among fans.
I’m sure this must seem like a wild coincidence: four lockouts in fourteen months, affecting three of the four major professional sports leagues of this country. What are the odds? Actually, they’re very good. This is not merely a case of four sets of labor negotiations that have tragically broken down. This is a conscious, industry-wide strategy. A law firm called Proskauer Rose is now representing management in all four major men’s sports leagues, the first time in history one firm has been hired to play such a unified role. In practice, this has meant that in four sets of negotiations with four very different economic issues at play, we get the same results: lockouts and a stack of union complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. It’s been great for owners and awful for players, fans, stadium workers and tax payers.
Proskauer Rose partner Howard Ganz represents the NBA and Major League Baseball, and fellow-partner Bob Batterman has led negotiations for the NFL and the NHL. As Sports Business Daily reported, “Batterman and Ganz provide advice on strategy, as well as on issues that can emerge during talks, such as the legality of using replacement players.”
In other words, they are the people who scuttle collective bargaining and give word when to bring on the scabs. It was the now-infamous Batterman who was lead negotiator when NHL owners locked out the players in 2005 and canceled the entire season. Ian Pulver, counsel for the NHL Players Association in 2005, said of the lawyer, “Bob Batterman is a hard-nosed, smart management attorney who leaves no stone unturned. He will do his best to attempt to execute the orders of his clients including, but not limited to, breaking unions if necessary.” When Batterman was told of Pulver’s words he said, “I would be proud to have that on my epitaph.”
Proskaur Rose’s love affair with corporate power is not confined to representing professional sports owners. They boast on their website of having “one of the world’s pre-eminent private equity practices.” They are Bain, if Bain was smart enough to remain in the shadows. The firm’s other prize clients are a Murderers Row of Big Oil titans including BP America, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. Incidentally, this culture of representing polluters and union busters with pride and without societal concern seems reflected in the firm’s internal culture. Proskauer Rose is now being sued by their former Chief Financial Officer Elly Rosenthal, who accused the law firm of firing her following sixteen years as CFO after she took leave for breast cancer treatment. (Remember Elly Rosenthal the next time you see the NFL festooning its players in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.)
Perhaps it’s time we start viewing sports leagues less like family fun and more along the lines of highly scrutinized institutions such as BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. They have more in common than just their lawyers. Like big oil bosses, pro sports owners love corporate welfare, right-wing politicians and are deeply hostile to union workplaces and collective bargaining. Just as what’s good for ExxonMobil’s stock value—price gouging at the pump, lax environmental enforcement, war in the Middle East—is bad for America; what’s good for pro sports owners is bad for fans, stadium workers and especially taxpayers.
Given the context, today’s news that the NHL has hired republican guru of sophistry Frank “let’s call global warming climate change” Luntz to help with their messaging, makes perfect sense. This is a Frank Luntz crowd and its agenda reaches far beyond the world of sports. The number of lockouts, once the third rail of collective bargaining, has doubled since 2010. But you need more than cash reserves to make this the new norm. For management to win a lockout they need to convince the public—and transform the culture—into thinking that lockouts (starving out your workers) is an acceptable practice. No NHL players are starving, of course, but this is about exploiting sports to enforce a new national labor paradigm.
Some might think that a good idea would be to pressure the NBA, NFL and NBA to actually fire the lockout lawyers. They might suggest that we start a campaign to insist that the leagues hire negotiators who put the interests of fans and taxpayers at the center of these negotiations. But even if we could successfully disengage Proskauer Rose from our pro sports leagues, NBA and NHL Commissioners David Stern and Gary Bettman have more in common than just the combined five lockouts they’ve overseen in the past thirteen years. They’re also lawyers who used to be partners at a firm called Proskauer Rose. We are confronting our worst nightmare as sports fans: a vampire squid with a law degree attached to every tentacle.
The Washington Nationals, after winning 100 games and having the best record in baseball, have been vanquished by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the opening round of Major League Baseball’s maddening postseason. It’s deeply embittering, not least of all because it didn’t have to happen.
In our local DC newspapers, there’s always ample evidence of the arrogance of power backed by a compliant media. The sports section is hardly immune to this dynamic of the Beltway Bubble. When the Washington Nationals made the unprecedented and now clearly unconscionable decision to sit their ace Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs, there were howls of protest and derision: but almost all of them were from outside the DC, Maryland, Northern Virginia buffer zone. Inside the Beltway, the move was lauded as a master stroke.
Team general manager Mike Rizzo justified the the shutdown by saying that they were “saving” Strasburg because his All-Star arm had reached its inning limit. After all, argued Rizzo, the team would need Strasburg in top form for the playoff games in the future. As Rizzo said, in a quote that enraged opposing general managers and reverberated with anabolic hubris, “We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times.”
Imagine this being done in any other baseball town. In Boston, if the Red Sox had tried to shut down Curt Schilling in 2004, there would have been civil disobedience in front of Fenway Park.
But inside DC, great columnists like The Washington Post’s sage Thomas Boswell had nothing but aggressive contempt for those who objected to the shutdown. As the great baseball poet wrote on September 2, in now very unfortunate prose, “So all of the pundits who say the Nats can’t go to the series or even win it, just because they won’t have Strasburg, can kiss my press pass.”
To be clear, I had no problem with having a strict inning count for Strasburg and safeguarding his health. But why not sit him, as future hall of fame pitcher John Smoltz suggested, in July or August? Why not save him for when the team would need him most? The counter-argument that “you can’t shut down a pitcher and re-start him again” is more “baseball lore” than it is science. (Proof of that was seen in the Cardinals’ own old ace, the 38-year-old Chris Carpenter, shut down for much of the year, who returned to flummox the Nats in game three.)
I have no problem with caring about his health. I do have a problem with the Nats tanking this season out of arrogance and the media whipping a new, unsteady, colt-like baseball fan base into going along with the ride.
The baseball post-season can be an unpredictable, mind-bending experience where, as the Nationals found out, having the opposition down to its last out or even last strike doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a time when leaving a team—especially a veteran, resourceful team like the Cardinals—even a pinhole of oxygen can lead to a cascade of horror. The only truism in post-season baseball is that an ace pitcher, like some kind of Gandalfian wizard, can conquer all the dark magic the postseason can conjure. We saw this in Detroit series where defending Tigers Cy Young winner Justin Verlander shut out the pixie-dusted Oakland Athletics in their decisive Game 5. It happened in New York, where the great C.C. Sabathia broke the will and the bats of the fairy-tale Baltimore Orioles in their Game 5. Stephen Strasburg is DC’s Verlander, DC’s Sabathia. His moment was Game 5. Mike Rizzo took that away from this fan base. He took it away from a city that had poured $1 billion in public money into Nationals Park. He took it away from a team that showed all season that this could have been their year.
Rizzo, Boswell and all those who defended this decision should have the courage and the sense of shame to say that they were dead wrong. The true legacy of the Strasburg shutdown was shutting down an unforgettably beautiful season, leaving a legacy that tastes worse than chewing on dry aspirin. The arrogance of management and an unquestioning local media: it will get you every time.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston went off on his hometown fans after last Sunday’s game in an epic rant. He ripped the Kansas City fans for cheering when Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Winston attacks not only the fans but also the media. He speaks about understanding the fact that he has shortened his own life by playing this game, but that gives fans no right to act like Matt Cassel or any of them are anything less than human beings. As Winston says, “We’re not gladiators. This is not the Roman Coliseum.” This really needs to be seen to be believed: another athlete asserting his own humanity and telling fans, “Game over.”
For another, more concise rant from a football player, read Dave Zirin on “The Smartest—or Dumbest Tweet an Athlete Ever Sent.”
Many allegedly great minds from professors to school presidents have devoted peals of pages to the multibillion-dollar industry otherwise known as NCAA athletics. Yet no one has quite put their finger on the contradictions, frustrations, and tragicomedy of being the labor in this industry—a so-called student-athlete—quite like Ohio State’s third-string freshman quarterback, Cardale Jones. On Friday Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
Jones immediately deleted the tweet—as well as his entire Twitter account—but as many have learned before him, deleting a tweet is like cleaning a grease stain with fruit punch. As soon as the 18-year-old sent his tweet out into the world, Cardale Jones was held up as yet another example of (altogether now) “everything that’s wrong” with today’s athlete. Even worse, Jones, who hasn’t played one snap all season, was benched for Saturday’s game. As the Toledo Blade put it, “Mark it down as DNP (tweet).
But Jones’s crime wasn’t authoring what the Daily News called a “lame-brained tweet.” It was committing, to paraphrase Michael Kinsley, the greatest sin in sports: he was caught telling the truth. “We ain’t come to school to play classes” will most likely be a quote of mockery that rings through the ages. But Cardale Jones has also hit on something factual. Ohio State football, like a select sampling of the sport’s aristocracy, has morphed over the last thirty years into a multibillion-dollar business. Even in the shadow of sanction and scandal, according to Forbes, the Buckeyes program creates $63 million in revenue every year and accounts for 73 percent of all the athletic departments profits.
Columbus is where legendary coach Woody Hayes was pushed out after striking an opposing player in 1978. He was making $40,000 a year when removed. Their coach today, Urban Meyer, draws a base salary of $4 million and is the highest paid public employee in the state. Meyer also gets use of a private plane and a swanky golf club membership, and there’s a fellowship in his name. He can also earn six-figure bonuses as well as raises for staying on the job. The football coach earns three times what Ohio State President Gordon Gee does. As higher education lawyer Sheldon Steinbach said to USA Today, “The hell with gold. I want to buy futures in coaches’ contracts.”
The source of the contradictions and confusion that create this moral cesspool is not the riches earned by the Urban Meyers of this world. It’s that the players are given nothing but the opportunity for an education they often have neither the time nor desire to pursue. These are 18–22 year olds treated like a hybrid of campus gods and campus chattel. I once had a former All-American tell me a story of hitting the books until an assistant coach stopped by his dorm room and said, “You know you don’t have to do that, right?” This particular athlete persevered and graduated, and good for him. I can only say that when I was 19, if an authority figure told me I didn’t have to study, I would have held an impromptu book-burning in my dorm room. We are corrupting these young people by demanding that they become complicit in a sham. We are telling them to be grateful for the opportunity to be party to their own exploitation. We are telling them effectively to do exactly what Cardale Jones said, and “play school.”
This mentality of “play school” and get a shot at the NFL or the NBA is profoundly effective. It acts as a form of discipline that keeps players in line. This discipline doesn’t only come from coaches, academic advisers and family members but other student-athletes as well. A culture is created through “amateur-athletics” that incentivizes keeping your head down. If you’re going to cheat, or take easy classes with compliant professors, you do it quietly and keep the trains running on time. One thing you don’t do is point out that the emperor is buck-naked.
I have a friend who is a professor at Ohio State and he outlined this to me very clearly. He told me that in the wake of Cardale Jones’s tweet that “many student-athletes are enraged. They feel he makes them all look bad when all of them are busting their butts.” Their anger is what allows this system to continue as sure as the NCAA. They are angry because Cardale Jones just pulled back the curtain on an NCAA moral terrain built on a twenty-first-century bedrock of bewildering moral confusion. This only changes if Jones’s fellow football players stand with him and ask the question: “Are we all just ‘playing school’ so Urban Meyer can live like some sort of absurdist sports sultan? Are my blood, sweat and tears first and foremost a means to pay for the fuel for my coach’s private plane?” We don’t know if this will cost Cardale Jones his scholarship in the days to come. But one thing we can be sure about: whether or not he stays will have less to do with his effrontery than whether the freshman can effectively throw a football.
Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon, along with her husband and children, headed World Wrestling Entertainment through the peak of its misogynistic, homophobic heyday in the ’90s. That’s not to mention the multiple deaths and destroyed lives associated with rampant steroid use, a practice supported up by the WWE. Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin spoke with Exploded View’s Bill Dwight to ask why McMahon’s career in destructive entertainment doesn’t disqualify her from the Senate, or any public office.
“His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
You may or may not remember the name Mahmoud Sarsak, subject of the most important and most underreported sports story of 2012. Sarsak is the Palestinian national team soccer player who was jailed for three years without charges by the Israeli government. He was denied contact with his family, a trial and kept largely in solitary confinement for reasons that bewilder his loved ones to this day. Finally Sarsak was freed after refusing food for ninety days, losing a third of his body weight, and through his personal agony, spurring international outrage. (Having 2,000 fellow hunger strikers certainly helped.) Organizations like Amnesty International, the 50,000-strong international union of soccer players, FIFpro and even Sepp Blatter, the morally sclerotic leader of FIFA, called for his release. Israel relented but that is clearly not the end of Sarsak’s story.
Now Mahmoud Sarsak is in the news again after refusing an invitation sent by the legendary team FC Barcelona to attend its October Clasico match next week against Real Madrid. Sarsak will not make the trip because FC Barcelona wants him there to mute planned protests against the presence of another person invited to attend the match, former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Sergeant Major Gilad Shalit. Shalit is an Israeli folk hero after being a prisoner of war for five years, captured by Hamas in Gaza on June 25, 2006, on the cusp of Israel’s brutal 2006 bombing campaign in Lebanon, known as the “July War.” One of the many circulated petitions protesting the Shalit invite was specifically written and signed by Palestinian soccer players and endorsed by entire clubs. Their petition read:
“We, Palestinian footballers, athletes and sporting organizations and officials, are dismayed to learn the great team of Barcelona will host Gilad Shalit to the Clasico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, on October 7th, while more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting, many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released….Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine."
FC Barcelona had to respond to the torrent of criticism on its website, stating that contrary to reports it did not in fact invite Shalit itself but “accepted a request” from Israeli authorities to have Shalit “watch a match during his visit to Barcelona.” In the same press release, Barcelona announced its intent to unite Shalit and Sarsak as a symbol of efforts to bring “peace and harmony to the Middle East.”
But this is one game Sarsak wouldn’t play. As Sarsak said of Sgt. Maj. Shalit, “His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
Sarsak also made clear that understood that the roots of the invite wasn’t a desire for “peace and harmony” but a response to protest. “I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.”
The courage of this decision is very real. Not only was Sarsak rejecting FC Barcelona but also his own Palestinian embassy officials who formally asked him to attend. He was making clear that peace and harmony with Sgt. Maj. Gilad Shalit in the current circumstances would do more harm than good, selling the idea that peace under the current circumstances of quarantine and occupation was a peace worth having. As Sarsak said, “I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona but not [as] an invitation for normalization.”
Sarsak also stated that he didn’t want anyone to interpret his rejection of the invite as a refusal to speak out politically about his time behind bars. “It is a great honor and it is a victory for a Palestinian prisoner and for the Palestinian cause and a victory for our principles and stances that a prisoner who is at the same time an athlete should go out and explain the suffering of his people,” he said. “But in the presence of the soldier Gilad Shalit on the same stands, I will refuse this invitation.”